Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Niall Ferguson on WW2

I've had a mixed reaction to the first two installments of Niall Ferguson's three-part television lecture-with-pictures (for that's basically what it amounts to) The War of the World, based on his book of the same name. (I think it was shown in the U.K. last year, but it is just now being broadcast in the U.S.)

The second installment, 'A Tainted Victory,' dealt with the run-up to World War II and the main events of the war itself. Though much of it covered familiar ground, the opening segment on Stalin and his minorities policies (a "pioneer of ethnic cleansing"), and the closing segment on the war in Pacific, emphasizing the barbarity and dehumanization of the enemy on both sides that characterized it (including footage of American soldiers shooting wounded Japanese soldiers -- I don't think we saw that in Ken Burns's The War), were effective.

The middle part focused on the German-Soviet war (from the June 1941 invasion) and more briefly on the 'Final Solution'; here Ferguson, I thought, had some trouble finding new or particularly interesting things to say. He emphasized the battle of Kursk, known to all military history aficionados as the most massive tank battle in history, and noted that U.S. supplies and planes contributed to the Soviet victory. Basically, though, it was a huge bunch of tanks ramming into each other over a period of more than several days and a big land area. Update/correction (February 2015): I have crossed out the preceding sentence because it is not an accurate description of the battle. A glance at the Wikipedia article on the battle of Kursk, which seems to be an umbrella designation for several engagements with their own names, and then following some further links, makes this clear. Tanks did not ram into each other: this is a misconception popularized by a book on the battle that is mostly inaccurate, apparently.

At one point Ferguson asked why the police battalions made up of 'ordinary Germans' showed, on the whole, apparently so few qualms about participating in the mass shootings of Jews on the Eastern Front. His answer: It was partly a matter of self-preservation (easier to shoot at civilians than at Russian troops who were going to shoot back). He also noted that not long after V-E Day the Soviets started housing political prisoners in the former Nazi concentration camps they had liberated, the suggestion being that it is at least slightly ironic to refer to the Soviets as having "liberated" the camps. To the Jews and other camp inmates they freed, however, the Red Army's soldiers were liberators, a point he could have acknowledged.

At the end, Ferguson took care to note that he was not drawing a moral equivalence between Auschwitz and Hiroshima, but he went on to conclude that the Allies' victory was a "tainted" one, inasmuch as they adopted some of the same tactics (notably, targeting of civilians) as their opponents. In this sense, the war, he said, was not "good vs. evil" but "evil vs. lesser evil." In the longish view of history, I think this conclusion is defensible (though I would say "much lesser evil"). But I am also aware that Ferguson was born well after the end of World War II, and I suspect that many of those who lived through and directly experienced the events of the period will have a somewhat different perspective.


Steve Terjeson said...

I wrote a very similar review as yours here on the war of the world on my blog

I agree with you that those that lived through it certainly would have a much different outlook than those born after.

LFC said...

I've read your post on War of the World and I'm glad to know about your blog.

Nick said...

I haven't seen the series, but I found the book quite disappointing. The blurb suggested that the central thesis would be that during the C20th there was only a single conflict in which race, not ideology, was the central motivating factor and which the East ultimately won. But there is very little to substantiate this in the actual book. There are a few interesting chapters based on original research, but overall the book is a rehash of the WWII narrative with some scaremongering about Iran and China at the end.

Apparently his earlier stuff on the Rothschilds is much better. I think the lure of celebrity and being a court historian for the Bush administration was too alluring, sadly.

LFC said...

I haven't read the book (though I did look at an excerpt a while back in Foreign Affairs), but based on the series I think your judgment's right. For example, the notion that race mattered and class did not in the 20th c., which he pretty much says in the series, is hard to maintain with a straight face. And in fact he ends up not being able to stick to it consistently in the narrative.